Thursday, November 29, 2018

Review of The Force by Don Winslow (2017, HarperCollins)

Sergeant Denny Malone runs a special task force in North Manhattan, tangling with various drugs gangs and trying to keep the peace. He believes in facing fire with fire, brazenly policing through fear and violence and doing deals with gang leaders and Mafioso, and he’s prepared to reward himself and his crew by helping himself to criminal assets. Things start to go wrong when he tangles with and kills a drug lord, one his team also dies in the raid, and the crew help themselves to several million dollars and fifty kilos of premium heroin. Now routinely well over the blue line, Malone is cornered by the Feds. They want the names of corrupt lawyers and police. He is not prepared to give up fellow officers, but once you’ve turned rat, you’re on a slippery slope. Malone is a schemer, however, and he knows the secrets of many supposedly upstanding citizens, that everyone is playing a crooked game, and they also have a price.

The Force is a tour-de-force police procedural, with well-drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a complex, multi-layered, intricate plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. These alone deserve five stars, but what elevates the book is its wider political and social reflections. Most crime fiction is also usually a slice of social realism that provides a commentary on society and its ills. That commentary is often incidental, with the focus of the narrative on the crime, the characters and the plot. In The Force, it’s front and centre. Winslow’s ambitious tale of cops on the take in New York is not simply an engaging, compelling tale, but a searing exploration of law and justice in the US. But having got to the end, I’m still not quite sure what the message is; but perhaps that’s the point.

Denny Malone and his crew police North Manhattan with an iron fist, as vicious and brutal as the gangs they take on daily, and the price they extract for maintaining some kind of law and order is skimming money from drug busts and receiving other gifts and favours. Their form of policing is based on fear and doing deals with the gangs and mafia. To the media they are hero cops who make key busts manage to contain the crime and violence in the city. Winslow also plays them both ways – as criminal and corrupt as those they police and also good cops keeping the neighbourhoods safe and providing for their families. Even as Malone goes off the rails, crossing every line a cop should never cross, Winslow has him oscillating between good and bad cop – asking the reader to empathize and sympathize with a man who has lost his moral compass. On the one hand, Malone and his crew are the inevitable outcome of a failed society and corrupt justice system – from dodgy police, to crooked lawyers and prosecutors, bought judges, and slippery politicians – but on the other, they make their own choices and lie in their own beds. They are caught between structure and agency, to borrow from sociology textbooks.

And this is where Winslow’s message gets mixed: we're asked to believe that Denny Malone remains a good man despite his crimes; that society and justice and legal system is so flawed and corrupt that price of some kind of law and order is a police service who can only do good through being crooked. Yet, the story screams out that society and the system needs urgent repair, or indeed a thorough reworking given its biases and flaws; that neither the crimes or the police actions should be condoned. The story is so rich, multi-layered and thought-provoking, however, that I’m sure other readers have varying takes. And this is the real beauty of the novel: it provides a rich tapestry through which to consider the urban society and the state of law and order in the US. Overall, then, a thoroughly engaging novel that deserves to be read and re-read; a great American-novel for the times we live in.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Review of Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari (2009, Unbridled Books)

Peter Niels is an American journalist who used to cover war-torn parts of the world, but has shifted to general interest pieces and has travelled to Taiwan to research a story on religion. He’s accompanied by Pickett, a photographer. The pair travel to the Taroko Gorge, a national park and one of the island’s better known tourist destinations, and one of its Buddhist temples. Resting along a path, three Japanese school girls wander by. It is the last time they are seen and when they fail to return to their coach and class mates the alarm is raised. By the time the police arrive it is dark and the search will have to wait to the following day. Niels and Pickett, along with the Japanese teacher and four class mates remain at the site, staying in the visitor centre. Already tense due to the disappearance of the girls, they start to bicker and simmer, and the approach of a typhoon adds to the strain.

Taroko Gorge focuses on the unfolding drama of three Japanese school girls going missing in a Taiwanese national park. The last two people to see them are a disillusioned American journalist and his drunken photographer. Their class mates did not see them slip away or have no idea as to where they were headed. As night falls, a local police inspector who is wary of the involvement of Americans and Japanese visitors arrives. Unable to search in the dark, the Americans, the teacher and four school children remain on site, staying in the visitor centre.  Ritari explores the disappearance and the subsequent wait and search through four of the characters – Peter Niels, the journalist; Tohru Maruyama, the class rep; and Michiko Kamakiri, a jealous classmate of the missing girls; and Hsien Chao, the detective – using four first person voices. The resulting perspectives enable the reader to piece together what happened and why, which no-one character has a full-handle on. Ritari does a nice job of elaborating the characters and the relationships between them, with the emotional games of the school children replicated amongst the adults, who can’t help but think the worst of each other. The mystery of the disappearance is also nicely revealed. The overall effect is a story that is more like a play, exploring human nature with the characters limited to the stage of the gorge and visitor centre.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Back from a week in Taiwan, where I gave a couple of talks - one at the Contemporary Culture Lab in Taipei and one at Tunghai University in Taichung. An interesting place to visit and a bit of a contrast to Ireland in terms of climate, geography and culture. The island is about 40 percent the size of the island of Ireland, but it has four times the population, most of which is along the west coast as much of the land is very mountainous (some of which also four times the height of any in Ireland). I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and have already agreed to visit again next year some time. I'll need to find some more Taiwanese fiction to read by then.

My posts this week
Review of Ghost Month by Ed Lin
Review of Exit Berlin by Tim Sebastian
At last

Saturday, November 24, 2018

At last


The woman rose from her seat. ‘Brian?’

‘You were early?’

‘A little. Nerves.’

They sat down, Brian glancing around.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Just seeing if this is candid camera.’


‘Well, you’re well out of my league. Is this a set-up?’

Julie laughed. ‘You’re a flatterer.’

‘I’m a …’

‘Oh my god, you’re serious!’


‘You’re hilarious.’

‘I am?’

‘Just relax, Brian.’

‘Sorry; haven’t been on a first date in thirty years.’

‘You’re doing fine.’

‘I am? Because it doesn’t feel like that to me. If this is …’

‘Brian, there’re no cameras.’

‘Really, wow.’

Julie smiled. ‘At last.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review of Ghost Month by Ed Lin (Soho Crime, 2014)

August is ghost month in Taiwan, a time to remember the dead and act cautiously given ghostly presences. Jing-nan, however, is not superstitious and nor can he afford to be given he has the task of investigating the death of his former girlfriend. Jing-nan owns a food stall in the Shilin night market in Taipei, working long hours to try and pay off his inherited debt of his grandfather. He dreamt of another life though: graduating from UCLA and then marrying his childhood sweetheart, Julia Huang. The death of his parents though meant dropping out and returning home, which also meant he did not reunite with Julia, who had enrolled in NYU. He is shocked to read in a newspaper about Julia’s murder and that she had been working at a roadside stall. She was a star pupil who seems to have fallen further than himself. The police seem little interested in the case and at the behest of Julia’s parents Jing-nan starts to investigate the circumstances of her death. He is soon warned to mind his own business, but with Dwayne and Frankie, his two stall workers, and new girlfriend, Nancy, he continues to try and find out what happened and why.

Ghost Month is set in Taipei and follows the exploits of a night market food stall owner to discover the truth about the death of his ex-girlfriend. Lin spends a fair amount of the novel introducing the reader to Taiwan – its people, history, culture, food and politics – and does a fair job of setting the scene. The story, however, is fairly weak in a number of respects: the characters are somewhat two-dimensional, the dialogue is wooden, and the plot is weak and barely holds together, especially given that Jing-nan is prone to always making poor decisions. The result is a tale that reads better as a travelogue than a murder mystery; which is a problem given that the book is sold as the latter. Having read the book, the praise on the cover and inside the jacket is the real mystery.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review of Exit Berlin by Tim Sebastian (Bantam Press, 1992)

When the Berlin Wall comes down, James Martin knows that life is about to change dramatically. Four years previously he defected to East Germany in the wake of a personal tragedy and the rounding up of a British network by the Stasi. However, Martin was a mole; placed inside the East German regime with the aim of discovering the real agent inside British SIS. Nobody seems to remember this though; it was easier to re-write history so that he became that agent and a true defector. Now it seems he is surplus to requirements and when a Stasi-KGB liaison officer is shot dead leaving his apartment block and his neighbour murdered, Martin decides to flee West, unsure who to trust but determined to identify the traitor and settle old scores before the Cold War ends. 

Exit Berlin is set at the time that the GDR and the wall collapses and revolves around the question: what happens to secret services and defectors when a regime folds. The protagonist is James Martin, a former British agent who defected to the GDR four years previously. Martin’s position is made more difficult because he is actually a double-agent, planted by the British to try and identify a traitor in SIS, though that fact seems to have been forgotten; an inconvenient truth when the different sides are trying to brush over cold war activities. Rather than returning to his old life, it seems it would be better for some if he disappeared altogether. Sebastian tells Martin’s story through a first person narrative. Though not always the most engaging voice given the character’s dourness, the tale nonetheless maintains intrigue, with Martin unsure of where he stands or who to trust among old colleagues both behind and outside the Iron Curtain. The characterisation, unsettled dynamics and sense of place is nicely done, though the plot is a times a little elusive and by the end I didn’t feel I had a sure grasp of all the intricacies. A decent enough Cold War spy tale.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The workshop I'm attending has 'True' by Spandau Ballet on a permanent loop. I must have heard it fifty times or more during breaks in sessions. I'm thinking of organizing a walk-out until they put a different song on - it's become aural torture. I might be losing my mind: in future the song might act as a trigger-point for madness.

My posts this week
Review of The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp
Review of Early One Morning by Robert Ryan
Truth and regret

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Truth and regret

Cathy slammed the front door shut and marched to the kitchen.

‘Are you okay?’ Phil asked from the sofa.

‘No! We played that idiotic game again.’

‘It’s meant to be a book club.’

‘We all agreed that bloody stupid book didn’t deserve any more time.’

She appeared in the doorway, a large glass of wine in hand.

‘Apparently, when you’re asked to tell the truth, saying your biggest regret was having kids is not a good answer.’

‘That’s your biggest regret?’

‘Don’t start, Phil.’

‘But …’

‘I love them, okay! But they’re bloody hard work and cause nothing but grief.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (2016, Orbit)

Jack Sparks is the literary equivalent of a shock-jock – a loud, vulgar, offensive sociopath; always scheming and lying, and who lacks care and empathy. What drives him is his ego and its massaging by his fans and followers on every form of social media channel. His latest venture is 'Jack Sparks on the Supernatural' a book in which he sets out to debunk religion, the afterlife and the paranormal. His journey starts with an exorcism in Italy, which he interrupts by laughing at what he sees as an absurd, staged act. What follows is a series of increasingly creepy happenings, including a strange, haunting video with no provenance that appears on his YouTube channel that then disappears. Jack is determined to discover who made the video in order to prove it’s a hoax, using it as a means to gather content for his book as he meets with a combat magician and a group of paranormal investigators. But the more he tries to disprove the supernatural, the more it seems like it might exist, and it all seems to be leading to his inevitable death.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks follows the slow descent of a loutish, egotistical author as he tries to disprove the supernatural in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary. The story is told through the book notes of Jack Sparks, collated and edited by his brother, who also intersperses the text with other evidence, such as letters and audio transcript. Sparks is somewhat of an unreliable narrator who is determined to both shock readers and favourably script his own portrayal. He travels from Italy to Hong Kong to Los Angeles, pursued by the consequences of an exorcism he disrupted and prevented. He creates antagonism and resentment, and in his wake leaves a trail of destruction. By mid-way through it’s clear where the story is heading, though there is still plenty of intrigue, twists and gore. While it’s billed as a dark comedy, the humour fell a little flat for me, in part because it is all rooted in the awfulness of Jack Sparks, a character with no redeeming features who is loathsome throughout. The story is well constructed and told, but I can’t say I enjoyed the characters or story very much.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of Early One Morning by Robert Ryan (2002, Headline)

The mid-1920s, William Grover-Williams flees Ireland and his life as an IRA get-a-way driver to France. There he gets work as a chauffeur for William Orpen, an Irish artist whose muse and mistress is Eve Aubicq. Williams and Aubicq start an affair and marry, and she seed-finances his foray into racing cars. A natural driver, he is soon driving for Bugatti in grand prixs with his team mate and rival, Robert Benoist, a former First World War fighter ace. Benoist, Williams and Aubicq form a close friendship at and away from race circuits. When the Second World War starts Williams heads for England where he enlists, before being recruited into SOE. He’s then dropped back into France, reuniting with his wife and setting up a resistance network with Benoist and fellow racing driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille. As they build their network and start to undertake actions, the German SD are closing in, determined to put a halt to their work.

Early One Morning is a fictionalised account of the true story of William Grover-Williams, Eve Aubicq and Robert Benoist. Built around Williams, the tale covers from the mid-20s to the end of the war, with a separate thread tracing Williams’ SOE handler still seeking answers many years later. The main focus is the war years, especially Williams’ recruitment and training for SOE, his drop back into France and his work building a network with Benoist, and subsequent capture and internment in France and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As with all such fictionalised accounts of real people and events there is always a question as to the extent to which the author has taken artistic license with history, and undoubtedly Ryan has filled in detail – speculating on dialogue and action, and altering timelines for dramatic effect. But the broad arc seems roughly faithful, detailing the daring lives of two racing drivers and one of their wives. A little bit of a slow burner, the book picks up pace, intrigue and emotional resonance as it progresses. Overall, an interesting and engaging read.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Unusually for me I've started three books in a row where I've got fifty pages in and put the book to one side. I think I'll eventually finish all three, but I'm just not in the right mood for them right now. I'm not sure what I'm in the mood for, but perhaps it's Don Winslow's The Force, as that's next on the list.

My posts this week
Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox
Review of A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
One job

Saturday, November 10, 2018

One job

Clarke hit the wet pavement like a breaching whale.

Miller followed him down, three bullets thwacking into the building entranceway.

His boss was missing the crown of his skull.


A pointless question asked as he scuttled into the lee of a parked car.

Somehow his gun had appeared in his hand, but his instinct was flight not fight.

A smattering of bullets peppered the car.

The most obvious paths to safety were back into the building, or bolt left or right. Instead, he sprinted across the road.

He’d one job, yet the mayor was dead.

So, it was fight.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review of Sirens by Joseph Knox (2017, Doubleday)

Aidan Waits is a disgraced copper, suspended and unsure if he has a future in the police. His boss though has a possible route back which involves exploiting the situation: Waits can go undercover, trying to enter the inner circle of Zain Carver, a major player in Manchester’s criminal world. A disillusioned, dishonest ex-policeman with a drug and drink problem is liable to drift into Carver’s orbit. The task can double-up with a mission for a government minister whose daughter has become a siren for Carver, a party girl being groomed to collect drug payments. Carver though is no ordinary criminal – he has brains, charm and his own man in the police. And Isabelle Rossiter has no desire to be reunited with her father; in fact, Waits suspects she might have good reason to have run. Carver’s world is no place for a young girl though as women in his harem tend to end up dead. Waits is quickly out of his depth, unable to trust anyone – his boss and fellow police officers, the minister, Carver and his coterie, and himself – and he’s not sure if and whether he wants to survive. Deep-down though he wants justice and he’s prepared to play all sides to try and attain it.

Sirens is a dark, gritty, violent tale of fall and redemption set in Manchester. Aidan Waits has a past he’d sooner forget, bought-up in the care system. He has a future that is seemingly going nowhere having badly messed up his police career. The route to possible salvation is go undercover into the city’s criminal underworld, persuade a government minister’s daughter to return home, and uncover Zain Carver’s man in the police. It’s a suicide mission, but Waits has nothing to lose. A man on the edge – disgraced, disillusioned, dishonest – he’s out of control and reckless. Aiding and avenging Carver’s sirens – Cath, Sarah-Jane and the newest recruit, Isabelle, the politician’s daughter – seems worth the risks. Knox’s tale is a rollercoaster of a read, a dark, chilling thriller that throttles along. Full of twists and turns and tension it catapults the reader through the seedy and violent underbelly of the city, the drug-filled hedonism of the night-life, and the criminal gangs and their rivalry that supply the highs and lows. The sense of place and atmosphere are excellent, as is the characterisation. Waits is the perfect guide to this world, a fallen policeman who fits into the scene but can’t give up the notion of justice, even if it’s his own brand rather than defined by the law. While it could have been a fairly simple plot, Knox layers in multiple threads to produce a small Gordian knot that is slowly unravelled. The result is a compelling, page-turner.